Let's say you like a good gossipy book as much as the next person, but you have a certain reputation to uphold and can't be seen on the beach with the latest celebrity tell-all. Then you must read When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age, a fascinating social history as well as a fun gossipy read. Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Justin Kaplan (Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain) knows his history. In this book, he looks at the post-Civil War period through a study of the Astors and their lavish hotels. Once simply a place for the stranded passenger to stay the night, hotels became destinations all their own. With their restaurants, tea rooms and open lobbies, they became a place where the public could gather, and they defined what luxury meant to the growing middle class. Furthermore, they were architectural and technical wonders, their plumbing and electrical capacities usually exceeding those in the homes of all but their wealthiest guests.
The real fun of When the Astors Owned New York, however, is its stories of the Astor world. Cousins William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV did not like each other. Their joint venture, the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was in fact two hotels: A contract specified that corridors connecting the two buildings could be sealed off if the fragile truce, uncomfortable for both parties, failed to hold. It seems that every famous person had some connection with the Astors or one of their hotels and John Jacob Astor IV became irretrievably tied to our country's history when he went down with the Titanic. Kaplan has an eye for both the dishy details and the deeper meaning beneath them. This vision makes When the Astors Owned New York the best kind of history: entertaining. Faye Jones is on the faculty of Nashville State Community College.